Saving the world through computing(?)

Vanessa Thomas hails from Alberta, Canada via Lancaster, England.  She’s a PhD candidate in the High Wire Centre and has worked in a lot of different areas, continually exploring the relationship between computing and sustainability.

 

Sam:

Welcome to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. Shane’s not here tonight because I’m in San Jose, California at a conference.

 

Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference and we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens is that of Vanessa Thomas, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Lancaster and is a research associate in the Institute of Social Futures, also at Lancaster but she’s not Lancastrian. Where’d you grow up?

 

Vanessa:

I’m from Edmonton Alberta, Canada, which will probably give you a lot of context for why I do what I do if you know anything about the environment and oil sands and natural resource extraction.

 

Sam:

What did you want to be when you grow up?

 

Vanessa:

A fire truck but I’m not allowed to say that am I? Initially, in high school, I thought I wanted to be an accountant.

 

Sam:

You saw the light?

 

Vanessa:

I entered university and I took some entry-level classes, then I saw the light. I also took entry-level classes in computer science and learned that all of my skills in mathematics, which was what I always excelled at, could be applied to computing is well.

 

Sam:

You shifted into computing?

 

Vanessa:

Yes. During the first year I shifted away from accounting towards computing because I had thought that it was a more exciting and creative field for me to be in than just plain old numbers and maths and accounting.

 

Sam:

What did you think you were going to do with computing at that stage?

 

Vanessa:

I think I bought into a lot of the rhetoric around computing about saving the world through digital technologies, so I thought that I would get a job with Google. Google was just starting up at the time and it was really, really cool. Alternatively, I thought I would use my programming skills to make cool tools that would help people with their problems.

 

Sam:

Interesting that you described that as the rhetoric. I would say that the “cool tools” rhetoric is a lot stronger than any “saving the world” rhetoric, doing something innovative perhaps with digital technology, but I don’t know if there’s a common “saving the world” vibe.

 

Vanessa:

You’re right. I think retroactively I’m applying the saving the world rhetoric just because of the communities that I got involved with. Probably building the cool tools rhetoric was what I saw at first but that’s quite a long time ago. It’s over a decade ago that I started doing this, so it’s hard for me to remember exactly, back then.

 

Sam:

You said that Edmonton in Alberta, if I know anything about that, I’ll know everything about you. Okay. Pretend I don’t know anything about it.

 

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